Camel caravans, kasbahs and Berber Jews

Nearly a quarter of a million Jews once called Morocco their home, making it the largest Jewish community in the Arab world. On a recent bright afternoon in Marrakech, I contemplated this astonishing fact as I walked through the maze of ancient melah (ghetto), where 50,000 Jews once lived and worshiped. My destination, 36 rue Talmud Torah, was the Lazama Synagogue, one of two active temples of the 42 that for centuries were the heart of Marrakech’s Jewish community. Lazama’s bright central courtyard, walled in blue and white Moroccan Star of David tiles and open to the sky, seemed to welcome HaShem with the swallows chatting in the orange trees.

The interior of the Lazama Synagogue in Marrakech.

I crossed the courtyard to the sanctuary. Unlike Ashkenazi shuls, long rows of seats face each other in the traditional Moroccan style, allowing sons to face their fathers in prayer and separating the pulpit from the bimah. It was one of hundreds of synagogues, Jewish schools, cemeteries and mellahs which were restored as part of King Mohammed VI’s $20 million budget initiative. The renovated shrine looks contemporary, although it was founded in 1492 by Iberian Jews fleeing the Inquisition. This is where the town’s remaining 150 Jews come to pray.

As on my previous visits to Lazama, I was mesmerized by the back rooms, a treasure trove of Moroccan Jewish history. They are teeming with faded photos in ill-fitting frames, their plaster walls barely visible beyond the patchwork of images. Taken in the 1930s as part of an archival project, the images document the lives of Berber Jews in the Atlas Mountains, whose history spanned two millennia. Many of the young Berber Jewish men depicted on these walls traveled from remote villages to this synagogue to study Torah.

I wondered who these people were? They are not dressed like all the Jews I have seen: women wearing turbans and embroidered tunics, laden with a mass of silver jewelry – heavy earrings, necklaces and bracelets – and some with tattooed faces. Men – heavily dressed, bearded, many with payments– stares intently at the camera.

As part of an intrepid group of Jewish journalists venturing south from Marrakech through the High Atlas Mountains and the endless switchbacks of the Tizi N’Tichka pass, on this trip I encountered a culture that had traveled via camel caravans from the heart of Timbuktu in Mali. These caravans, a thousand camels strong, crossed the Sahara laden with goods (salt, silver, gold, precious stones, spices, cotton). They traded in bustling desert markets in the south and traveled as far north as Marrakesh. You can still feel Moroccan Jewish life along these caravan routes and remote mountain villages. You can find crumbling mellahs tucked away in the corners of desert kasbahs, old synagogues turned into antique shops, and shrines to legendary rabbis turned places of pilgrimage.

No one knows more about Morocco’s Jewish past than the author of Jews under the Moroccan sky, Raphael (Raphy) David Elmaleh. He told me that following the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 AD, some 30,000 Jews fled to the Maghreb of North Africa (Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia), then inhabited by Berber tribes. It is believed that migrant Jews, toshavimfounded Jewish settlements in the Atlas Mountains, living alongside Berber neighbors.

The Berbers, also known as Amazigh, were animists. Many were drawn to the Jewish way of life and many believed that living with Jews was a baraka, or divine blessing. “The Berbers saw how the Jews prayed, and how they slaughtered cattle, and they connected to Judaism,” Elmaleh explains. Many Berbers converted to Judaism and became known as “Jews of the Atlas”. Still others married the toshavim. A hundred years ago, 175,000 Berber Jews lived in the region from the Atlas Mountains south to the Sahara.

The heritage of the Berber Jews is still visible in the markets. The style of silver jewelry I saw in the black-and-white photos is still sold in markets today, and every aging merchant knows of a Jewish family that has moved on. One of our guides, Hamid Bou-Layoun, lit up when I asked him. “Of course I knew Jews!” he quickly replied, shielding his eyes and adjusting his indigo dara’a to cover their heads from the scorching sun of the Ouarzazate desert. “They were my friends and neighbors. I played with Jewish boys and ate at their house. And then one day we woke up and the families were gone.

But, I discover, although the Berber Jews are gone, remnants of their lives live on.

Fatima, a local Muslim woman, tends to the grave.

Imagine a narrow mountain road in the fertile Ourika Valley, about 65 km south of Marrakech. Famous for its fruit trees and for the mint that fills Moroccan tea glasses, this village was once a thriving Jewish community with 300 families and several synagogues and yeshivas.

It also houses the tomb of Rabbi Solomon Bel-Hench. A fifteenth century tzaddik and physician from Israel, he rode across North Africa on a mule, raising funds for his yeshiva. He died in this valley and is now called the “Saint of Ourika”, revered by Jews and Muslims for his legendary healing miracles. Today his tomb is the site of annual pilgrimages, or hiloulasattracting followers from all over the world.

One of the last Berber Jews in the valley, Hananiyah Alfassi, guarded Ben-Hench’s tomb for more than 30 years until his death in 2016. Now Fatima, a local Muslim woman who greets tourists with a friendly ” Shalom!” takes care of this Jewish holy place and helps prepare kosher meals.

By the 11th century, Berber Jews had established a colony and trading post of 3,500 people at Ouarzazate, the “gateway to the Sahara”. The Jews were shrewd merchants at this busy stop on the old caravan route, buying salt, silver and spices from the caravan traders – some of whom were Jews from Timbuktu – and selling dates, skins camel and mule for saddles.

My group of journalists was ushered through the main gate of Ouarzazate’s medina, into what looked like a giant sandcastle, the Kasbah of Taourirt. Nearby, at the bend of paths with walls of dried red earth, is the heart of the melah, where about 170 Jews lived until the exodus of the 1960s. We were heading to the famous site of a former synagogue. But author Raphy Elmaleh insists that is not the case. “It was made for tourists!” he shouted indignantly during our Whatsapp call. “The real synagogue was around the corner, now a store that makes blankets and rugs.” Whether it was a real synagogue or a recreated tourist attraction, its maze of cluttered rooms was an abundance of found objects in a Jewish Berber home. The back rooms featured antique household items, clothing, hand-woven Berber rugs, with a small Judaica retail section. At the top of a very narrow staircase, the sun shone through Magen Davids in the circular windows on our way to a classroom that would be a yeshiva.

As we approached the nearby village of Bizou, a huge white-walled complex appeared in the distance, rising from the flat, green landscape. It is the destination of thousands of visitors from around the world who gather on the eighth day of Hanukkah to celebrate the life – and yartzheit – of Rabbi David Ben Baroukh Cohen Azogh. The tzaddik, descended from a long line of Jewish saints, is said to have performed miracles not only in life but even after death.

I entered the compound through heavy wooden doors, surprised by a huge menorah that towers over a huge cobbled square. I could almost see thousands of pilgrims singing, dancing and praying in this vast open space, waiting for the shekinah, the presence of God, to return to the Rabbi’s grave. Beyond the square is a sea of ​​whitewashed tombs surrounding the tomb of the tzaddik in a pavilion of white marble. According to Raphy Elmaleh, 322 tzaddikim are buried in Morocco, but only 75 have marked graves. It is one of the most remarkable.

Ksar Ait Ben Haddou is Morocco’s most famous kasbah and a UNESCO World Heritage Site (UNESCO itself is headed by Audrey Azoulay, of Berber Jewish descent). It is believed that this fascinating ancient ksar (Berber palace) dates from the 11th century and occupied an important position along the trans-Saharan trade route. According to Raphy Elmaleh, Jews took full advantage of this busy commercial center and settled here. This impressive fortification was the filming location of Lawrence of Arabia and Gladiator.

The photographs that caught my attention in the Lazama Synagogue immortalize a world that has now disappeared. For centuries, Berber Jews were silversmiths and goldsmiths, saddlers, carpet merchants, farmers. They were kasbah builders, architects and engineers. But it is in trade that the Berber Jews have forged a lasting reputation. An old Moroccan proverb, from when markets were the lifeline of culture, says: “A market without Jews is like bread without salt. It is the legacy of Berber Jews, respected for their resilience and entrepreneurial skills, who played such a vital role in the social and economic structure of mountain and desert villages. mellahs they called home.


Top image: The village of Bizou has a Jewish cemetery where the tzaddikim are buried and an enormous eight-armed menorah around which pilgrims dance during the eighth day of Hanukkah to mark the yartzheit of Rabbi David Ben Baroukh Cohen Azogh.

About Wesley V. Finley

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